Richard E. Grant in conversation with Mike Figgis
SHOOTERS SALON - 18/04/2006
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‘Wah-Wah’ opens in the UK on JUNE 2nd and if you didn't get to come to the screening, check out www.bbc.co.uk/movies for where ‘Wah-Wah’ is on in your area. It was released in the USA last weekend and also opens soon in Australia and South Africa. The ‘Wah-Wah’ diaries have also been released (Amazon) which digs even deeper into the experiences Richard faced in getting his directorial debut into the world.
[Mike Figgis] It was a fantastic film. I’d read about it but it’s the first time I've seen it, and I wasn't quite prepared for it to be quite so emotional. How did you go about compressing as you said in your introduction, what was a much longer time span into a working structure?
[ Richard E Grant] Bruce Robinson directed and wrote the first film that I was ever in 20 years ago (Withnail and I), and I asked him for screenwriter’s advice. He said “what has happened today that has never happened before”? and I instantly knew that it had to start with my mother’s adultery in the back of a car that I inadvertently witnessed - as you do. So I knew that was the beginning of where I should start the story and I knew that my father trying to shoot me (with provocation from me), was the middle of the story, and I knew that his utterly bizarre funeral which has been denied you but which I will tell you about later, was the end of the story. So I knew that that was the timescale. I took obvious historic and dramatic licence because originally this story was set in a fictitious African country called ‘Zwighella’ and so that during the time of writing it enabled me to combine Princess Margaret leaving a production of Camelot halfway through Independence.
Which was true?
No, which in reality wasn't - Princess Alexandra presided over Independence, which was 1968. I was in Camelot in 1975 and Princes Margaret left halfway through The Merchant of Venice in 1981, but it was irresistible to get rid of!
And so it’s poetically correct
Yes the ‘whiting up’ of the gardener Dozen was absolutely accurate. But by the time we got to shooting the film, the producer I think not unreasonably, said “this is so clearly your story you have to call it Swaziland”. And so by that point I was too deep in and I couldn't back pedal and say “well actually this didn't happen in the time that it did…” She said “oh don't worry about that and so…”
I didn't notice but at the end of the film is there the disclaimer, the standard one, that none of the characters in this film are based on real people etc, I didn't notice that actually?
Yes there is a disclaimer saying it is semi-autobiographical. It says something to that effect, some legalese to get me of the deep shit that I might fall into! But you know people have said “did this exactly happen, is this verbatim the dialogue that happened?” The one line of dialogue that the producer faithfully fought to get out of the film was “I never stopped loving your mother” which my father said to me. It was the last thing he said to me when he could still speak, he did actually say that. She wanted that line out, saying we would alienate the audience and yet we did an audience poll when the finances collapsed during the editing. We stopped for 3 weeks not knowing how long it was going to go on for and we tested cold audiences in Soho of a similar size as this. I was devil’s advocate, saying to the audience “what do you think of this line, should it be in or should it be taken out?” and there was one voice out of 100 people who said “I think it should be out because you lose sympathy for Ruby”. And the other 99 people without any prompting from me, they all turned on this poor woman and said “you’re completely crazy, this is the truth, it has to be kept in as it explains the father’s character”. They were arguing way better than I ever possibly could, and so that was a great moment from my point of view.
But you know as for the rest, the main protagonists are based fairly and squarely on my family, but all the supporting characters are amalgams of people. What is curious is when we were filming in Swaziland a lot of the extras including the woman that originally played Guinevere are in the film, now of course looking like she has pathetic old age makeup on because it is 35 years later. They all had opinions about who the people were and they were constantly telling the cast “well, this was based on this, and this is based on that” and most of it was inaccurate. And so it is a fiction that is utterly true if you like.
We are going to jump all over the place obviously and there is too much to talk about, but you the actor/director and now writer, when it came to the point of actually doing it, (we will go back to the script because I want to ask you much more about that), but lets talk about the fun on set, because there is a lot of mischief isn’t there, with the characters. How much licence did you give the actors or yourself at that point, and go well fuck it I did the script and all that, and I know where I’m coming from, now it’s a film?
Well that’s a great question - it’s a combination. I am so flattered and honoured that you are doing this honestly Mike I am really, really thrilled and thank you for all coming. I’m arse licking but I am very, very honoured. He has never employed me!
I just might add when I made my first ever film that’s when we met, right?
And this juvenile lead walked in and I think you turned me down actually, do you recall that?
I blame Nigel Stafford Clark then. On with the question…
To answer your question help me I've completely forgotten what you told me..
It was about fun and mischief and the actors
There are two directors that have most had an impact on me and because the first one has employed me twice, once on the ‘boil’ film (How To Get Ahead In Advertising), and the other one ‘the drunk’ film (Withnail and I). And Robert Altman has employed me three times. And whereas Bruce Robinson wants every comma and colon adhered to and absolutely stuck to as a scriptwriting director, Altman is the reverse you know, if he can throw the script out of the window or whatever he does that instantly, giving the actors great freedom and manoeuvrability. But sometimes, as in the case of ‘Prêt A Porter’ where there was almost no script, it’s a disaster. And when there is a script, as in ‘Gosford Park’, then all of that I think really pays off and works. And so I was very influenced by that.
Having written, as I am sure many people in this room have done, I eventually wrote 27 drafts of this script. Essentially the structure stayed the same, and some of the scenes got tightened or a lot of the subsidiary peace corps characters got cut…
How long was the first one?
I wrote the first draft straight out at 140 pages
And how long was the last one?
It was 100 pages and the film was 100 minutes and so that ratio of page to script is what it is. And I knew the moment I had written it all that it was already 25 or 40 pages too long, and started to cut immediately. I found it a bit like the Bible story - never look back or you will turn into salt, but just keep going all the way through, to get everything that I wanted to say in the story out first and then ruthlessly chop back. And so as a result some of the subsidiary sub plots and the American peace corps people who were avoiding the Vietnam war and were a great sort of cultural clash between the colonial old guard, bringing this sort of hippy modern music sensibility, were cut. That all had to go unfortunately because people kept saying to me “you’ve read the script, you have got to stick to the family because that is the essence of the story”. But I was so worried that my own story was not sufficiently dramatic to an hold an audience’s attention and so thank god, (I haven't heard what the English critics have said yet), but I have been proved wrong in that. But that was a real worry because you think that your own life is maybe not sufficiently dramatic enough to hold 100 minute’s worth.
And also you know I am sure you may have noticed through the many films that you have made and the directors you have worked with, that it is a very unforgiving medium
And it does not take kindly to being too dense and too multi layered -
And one of the things I really, really loved about the film and the way you did it was that you did as you were describing just now, resist the temptation and that trap of the first film to get five films into one film, in case no one ever asks you again to make another film. The sort of central idea kept through for me anyway, and when I was watching it, there was no moment where I thought ok now he is kind of wallowing a little bit and he will get back on the main road again - because film is so unforgiving with that.
Well thank you. And just to finish off, (I’ve gone round the houses here), to answer your previous question, was to say that the actors were very respectful, yeah they were genuinely respectful towards the writing and the characters that they were playing. But they also asked if there were things that they could improvise or of they could bring to the story from their own lives. And because of having had the incredible experience of working with Altman, I was so grateful for that. And my favourite scene in the whole film is a scene that has no dialogue that I have written, and so I suppose that is to do with my being able to watch it and just enjoy what the actors do. And that is the scene where the three of them right towards the end - father, stepmother and son listen to Kenneth Williams in the ‘Round the Horn’ stuff. I loved that because there was no dialogue from me and that was a scene that was written for father and son in the garden on their own, and it was the one time when the weather turned foul and Gabriel Byrne said to me that there were so few scenes where you see him with Emily Watson where they are very loving towards each other as opposed to being in conflict. He said “she has to be in this scene” and I then spoke to Emily and I asked what she could do and she said that she could be filing his nails. I said do you not have a problem with that - the manly guy having his nails filed in a scene, and she said “no, not at all”, and they were all absolutely up for that.
And so the actor’s contribution to that was absolutely enormous from my point of view. It may sound stupid and facile just saying it like that, but there were so many incidences similar to this. In the same way in the scene with the Nat King Cole song ‘Stay as Sweet As You Are’ is playing, when the boy gets the parents dancing together, Gabriel was absolutely insistent that there was no sound whatsoever before hand. I had written some dialogue with Nicholas Hoult saying “come in and this what you do and I want you to do this” when they didn't know what was going on. Gabriel said “you must do that in complete silence” and then you see what he is doing and it will have so much more impact. And so that constantly happened with the actors, and I love that!
Do you believe a bit like Altman who has been such an influence for all of us, that there is a vital stage called ‘the casting process’ and that is actually where the film either actually sinks or swims?
And that once you have made that choice that these actors are chosen for their specific qualities, did you find you were jumping in as a director and saying “no, no lets just talk about that”? Were there instances where that happened, when you felt that you had given them too much freedom and that you had to go in and stop them? Or for the most part… just talk us through the process, how do you direct actors?
Well there were two incidences, again relating to what I just said you about Gabriel Byrne feeling that there weren't enough glowing moments between him and Emily Watson. So he wrote himself a wonderful half page speech saying “this is the 4th of July etc”. It’s the scene where Julian Wadham as Charles is saying “we have had this most wonderful idea to give the Swazi nation a production of Camelot”. We spent about 3 hours very early in the morning over breakfast and kept all the crew waiting, and the producer was looking at the clock and pulling her hair out and I thought, take a deep breath this maybe good for the movie! And Gabriel came up with this speech and we shot it but I knew absolutely in my guts that as good as it was for him having that speech to do, it stole the thunder away from Julian Wadham and was telling the audience stuff that I truly believed from the way that it was written and how it was cast, that would be absolutely implicit. But as a first time writer/director and with Gabriel Byrne being a producer, a writer and an actor, he was very determined that we do this. And of course the first thing the editor (who wasn't on the set at all because she was in France due to budgetary restrictions) said to me was “that scene is out!”. That was with no input from me you know, she just stuck to the script and said “this interferes with the story”. But having said that it brought about great discussion with the actors and probably made me much more aware of how important it was that when Gabriel says to Emily Watson right at the end after he has given the watch and just before going to see Camelot, “you look beautiful”. I realised how important those good moments had to be, and that they had to earn their keep in that way. I don't know whether that has answered your question?
Yes it has. What I would like to ask because I know the audience will guess and I am sure I am right there are people who would like to direct a film one day or act in a film, or somehow be involved in the process of the creative thing. These discussions are always really interesting and I think ultimately very useful. The thing is I am a director and I know very little about other directors. I know how I direct actors, but I really don't have a clue how anybody else does it. And so you get the call and you’re on the set and you have scene 58 to shoot that morning and you have four actors in it - what did you do?
Well I’m going to go round the houses first. I’ve had the great privilege because I have been an actor for so long, working with so many directors that I have kept copious notes all these years of what not to do as much as anything. And so I realised that as a director you have a chance, whereas actors you see how they act all the time. But to see other directors working is something that you are denied, and that actors constantly have to deal with! Sorry that came out wrong worship, listen at the font!
I found that in the casting process, and talking through the parts, and the actors asking me, (as I am sure they have done you Mike), a thousand questions a minute about every single aspect of the character without actually doing the dialogue. So that when we came to actually shooting it I stuck to the tried and tested thing in my experience (I don’t know whether you do this Mike) - of everybody having breakfast and then all of you, without any of the technicians present go through the scene in the location where it is set. And so the actors don't have any pressure at all or people watching them and so they actually do it for the first time until they are comfortable with it, which can be anything between 10 minutes or half an hour or even an hour if need be. You know people worry and they think oh my god that’s far too long you’re eating into the day but by taking that time you save time at the other end, because everybody knows exactly what they are doing. And when everybody is comfortable with how the scene is laid out or how everybody is interacting, then get the key technicians in to watch and do their job to sort it all out and then everybody can go away to hair and makeup.
The challenge in the morning is that it is maybe not the most creative time within the 24 hour time span and you are expected to sort of produce something very, very quickly which technicians can then quantify in terms of focus marks, camera movement and all the other things that they need to know. And they are desperate for information at breakfast time and the pressure is on you as the director at that point, to give them that information really quickly. And often perhaps it feels a little at the expense of say the drama you know, because once they have put the focus marks down it becomes harder to change things.
Agreed, but having been an actor for so long I know that with the preparation that you are doing the night before and that you go to sleep thinking about, and that you wake up thinking about even though you are groggy, that you are so charged and ready to do that scene, that even though it is early in the morning it feels always to me like a great bonus that you have had that time. So that before all the technicians come in you just sit and do the scene as quietly or loudly or whatever is required, as you possibly can. And then the main technicians come in and they are the first audience and it is then you know - people get a taste of whether the thing works or not. I am sure as you know, the moment an audience, even that small audience, engages with what is going on everybody feels that, and it is electrifying even if it is at 6.30am in the morning. Then you feel able to go have the makeup and the hair and fart around and gossip and all that stuff and then come back and start doing the day’s work.
Going back a little earlier to drafts of the script, how many did you write?
27 in the end
Over what period of time
I wrote the first draft after a pitch meeting in October 1999 for the first producer before she withdraw to become a drugs counsellor in Barbados a year and a half later. So that first draft took 8 weeks and then I reduced it down to 115 pages and then…
Did you hand write it or type it?
I type everything because my handwriting is terrible and so all on a laptop, on Final Draft which is a god send and is worth every penny that I ever invested in it. So all the subsequent drafts were written by the time it was cast and accommodated things that the actors pointed out to me.
This is a technical question which I think is very crucial for writing. When you went from say draft 5 to draft 6 did you start from the first word of the first line of the first page and rewrite it, or do you go in on the computer and cut and paste and reduce and fiddle?
I never went right from the beginning. In the same way that I learnt to edit by using the method that if there was a section of the film that seemed alright and it worked, like a section of the script where scenes seemed to flow from one to the other, I left those alone. Only where there were things that were a problem, that kept coming up from people who had the script and they said “there is something that is not right here”. Or in the editing of the film where you just knew that some scenes just didn't fit in the way that you felt that they should. Those were the ones that I jumped into and concentrated on.
But as you know from writing there is this awful domino effect that you get, and William Goldman deals with it brilliantly in his ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ and his other book. It seems so easy when you get all these notes and they say “ok take out this scene and take out that one, and that one” and you think it’s solved all these problems, and then of course you take one out and then there is domino effect of other things falling apart. And if you take that bit out then this bit of the story is suddenly…
I am in the middle of an ongoing bad relationship with lets say ‘the folks on the West Coast of America’ and scripts, and I came up with the theory the other day because it was yet another film where they said “you know we love it but it’s the third act, we just need a new third act”. And so they go and amputate a third act of another film and then do microsurgery and put a lot of plasma in very, very quickly and then they kind of say “we seem to have fixed that”. And I said you know my theory is that whatever the problems with the third act are they are to be found in the first act, and you can’t fix the third act without fixing the first one. If there is a problem with the third act you need to go back to the first act and fix that because the book ending idea is actually quite a solid one you know. So when you compare the final version of this to the first version are there scenes that are recognisable, or has it changed like chinese whispers and has it become a different thing?
No, - I think if you saw the version of the script that was sent to actors in 2000 it is essentially pretty much the script that it ended up being. There are no great structural changes. The French producer was absolutely possessed and crazed that all of the Camelot stuff should be cut in its entirety, so that was an ongoing battle. And the editor finally explained it to me, this extraordinary woman called Isabelle Dedieu who had done ‘The Barbarian Invasions’ and ‘The Decline and Fall of the American Empire’, which are two Canadian films that won the best foreign pictures. She said that you have to look at it from the point of view that there is no tradition according to her in France, of people going to musicals, and that is why she didn’t want the Camelot stuff in the film. So if you mention ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Mary Poppins’ or ‘Moulin Rouge’ or even ‘Chicago’ the fact is, that they never made any money in France and they are not part of the culture in the way that they are in America and certainly in the UK. So that may have had something to do with it.
My much more brutal and sceptical conclusion having spent 2 years trying to get the fucking song Rights cleared is that she just didn't want to pay for them! And so bollocks to the French cultural tradition of non-musicals - I don't buy that for a nanosecond but I have given it some air here for you to enjoy! I knew if there was no ballast of the kind of joy and malarkey going on, then the whole thing would be like bloody Ibsen and go down the toilet so fast and that is not my sensibility or the kind of film that I wanted to make anyway.
But in terms of this third act that you talk about, when the script was sent to every American actress that you care to think of that is well known between the age of 35 and 45 to play the part of Ruby almost every agent said “she comes on at page 30” and they said “well that’s the second act”!. And I said “well she can’t come into the story earlier than that”. And they said “well no you are not hearing what we’re saying and I said “I am really hearing what you are saying”!. And they said “well you don't know about the three act structure and you know the character blah, blah… “ and all this stuff that every executive, God bless, knows back to front!
God bless them!
But they have never written a script and they have never made a fucking script and so you know you have to stick with what the story is. And because it was my story I couldn't say well you know Ruby suddenly appears in the fourth page of the movie.
I have often sat in meetings, blissfully not in the last year or so, with executives where they have read your draft of the script and then they give you notes about character and the three act structure and you find yourself nodding and kind of going “hmm”. And it is sometimes that thing of when you are waiting for a train and your body sort of comes out of your body and jumps in front of the train. My version was that you body comes across the table and grabs them and pulls them over and head butts them and puts them back while you are still nodding.
I would like to actually do that - not even get the out of body, just to do it straight ahead! But you know from their point of view they have to invest a huge amount of money in the thing and they have to gamble or their reputation or their job is hinged on that and so they have got to say something. It must be the worst job.
What if it was brain surgery and they were behaving like that you know?
Maybe we could become brain surgeons!
Here is a question I really want to ask you, I also grew up in Africa until I was 8
In Nairobi and I have never been back. When I first decided I wanted to be a film maker I started working on a story about growing up in Africa and then I did a bit of research into British colonialism and decided that perhaps it wasn't such a great idea. Who gives a fuck about another story you know, about a white person growing up in Africa. You pulled it off though!
I’m glad you didn't open the proceedings with that thank you! You’re right
I am right yes, and you have made a really great film! And I know how difficult it is because I truly abandoned that idea. And then I made a film called ‘The Loss of Sexual Innocence’ which had a couple of episodes in Kenya and they were also in my case because it was 20 short stories, half deeply autobiographical and half fictitious. And I took the position of saying well that’s for you to work out, I am not going to tell you. So I was also intrigued at the beginning when you said it is entirely true. So here is my question: I am told that memory functions like this – that when you remember a childhood incident you are not actually remembering that incident but you are remembering the last time you remembered that incident. So that the layers of memory function in sequence and so you may be beyond your 5000th return to that particular incident so it is very hard to jump over those layers, and go back to the source. However I have found in one particular incidence when I did deal with very painful autobiographical material whilst shooting the film, that the only time that it has ever happened to me I did find myself very painfully forced back to the moment of the original memory. And there are so many painful things in your film and that you brought all of your skill and your intellect and your talent, and your memory into these incidents and these images - did that feel strange, was it painful when a scene worked really well - and the better the scene worked, how did you deal with that?
Well thank you for the intellect compliments I've never been called that before, thank you! There are two things – firstly that I have an elephantine memory, although layered as you say. I started keeping a diary at the age of 11 after I witnessed what you saw as the opening scene of the film with my mother. Simply because if the fates deal you that poisonous secret as it were which I couldn't tell anybody about, then writing about it was a way of making it real. I suppose it is like any kind of abuse where you think “am I the only person who has suffered this?”. Whereas if you write it down, somehow you have expressed it and you have got it out, and it is sort of evidence. So if you were run over by a truck somebody could say, well actually this did happen to that person. And so because all the diary has been a life long habit of keeping a record on a daily basis, yes that is the condensed version at the end of the day, of your view of that day. But it is more reliable and immediate I think, than if you are looking back from 35 years later. So that is one thing that helped enormously. And the other is that I obsessively smell everything and I have discovered as I am sure many of you know, that your sense of smell and your memory are the two closest linked things. And so if you smell something that you haven't smelt for 40 years, you are instantly back to where you were.
I was very struck when I saw documentaries about people that had survived the Second World War, the Korean War, any of the wars from a great many years ago and that you could find men who would be quite capable of talking about bread and butter and sausages and whatever. And they would talk about the day that their best friend was shot to pieces right next to them in a trench or something and what I realised is, and forgive me if it sounds so obvious, but that pain knows no sense of time. You get round it and you get used to living with it. But the moment these men have talked about the people who have died next to them they are as emotional and present even in their old faces it seems to me, as the day that it happened. And so in the writing of the script, the stuff that you have pointed out that was painful in the story, I went right back in there because you know they are like your ghosts I think, they sort of hover throughout your life and you don't think about them every day. But the combination of the diary, the smell and recreating them was how I got there.
And being there
And being there. So the extraordinary thing was to be back in Swaziland actually making it. Emily Watson said that it was like walking into Richard E. Grant’s memory force field because there was nothing and no place and no smell or person or incident, that I didn't have a sort of encyclopaedic amount of information to offer the actors if they wanted. Gabriel Byrne for instance never wanted to see a picture of my father and he didn't want any real information about him, he was so determined that he would interpret it according to his experience of life. That’s what he said but of course there were other questions that came round about it. But he essentially was not there to do “oh tell me how he walked or how he spoke or what he did”, he wasn't trying to do an imagined recreation of somebody that he had never met
Did he get him?
Oh absolutely nailed him, I think he is fantastic in the film, absolutely extraordinary. So I think what happened is I had one of these little monitors, (I know they are big screens now), but you know a monitor when you are watching the scene as it is happening and the French crew, (well the sound and camera department were French because we were a UK/French co-production) – well they were very, very worried about me. They said to various other crew members and a lot of the actors, ‘is he having a nervous breakdown?’ because I would be sitting watching a monitor, getting completely involved and then afterwards they would say to me “are you alright do you want a cup of tea or game of Scrabble or Boggle or whatever?”. They thought I was never going to make it all the way through the film because I was so intense! But that was entirely because I suppose I was willing the thing, and reliving it through each actor’s performance and so as I am not the most subtle actor on the planet needless to say, they thought I was about to have a thrombotic right there and then! Anyway I don't know whether that answers your question?
It does. I will do one more little push - I mean some of it is really painful. Were you able to still direct it, in other words was your directing sensibility still the dominant one, or were there times when lets say, you were a number of years and many drafts down the line and so on, and then finally everything is pointing to one small thing. Usually the child or the younger boy or the older boy and so on, witnessing something which you say is as true as you can make it. I mean in psychiatric terms that would be a very strong therapy and people would consider it to be quite dangerous.
Well I think that the scene of recreating my father’s funeral with 100 extras was a day that I lost my nerve. The hotel was 5 minutes away from that beautiful house location and my wife had just recently arrived and my daughter, and I came back after the walk through at about 7 o’clock in the morning and said “I can’t do this, I can’t.
I can’t deal with these actors I won’t know what to say to them” and my wife said do you remember what I told you (she had worked as a dialect coach on Streisand’s directorial debut Yental 20 years before), and she said “one day at a time, one day at a time Barbra one day at a time”. And so she just said “Richard one day at a time, one day at a time”. And so I thought ok one thing at a time and it’s all storyboarded out. I went back with little iPod speakers and played really perfect music by a composer Abdullah Ibrahim which so set the mood for the actors and everybody, and all the technicians got very quiet. I found that very useful. I learned that from Coppola on Dracula, that when there was a scene that needed a certain mood or atmosphere, god forbid there would be a 1st AD going around shouting “shut up shut up, silence”! because people don't give a fuck after a while. But by playing the music you didn't have to say anything, everybody quietened down. Why it was so emotional for me I think apart from recreating my father’s funeral, was that so many of the extras had been at his funeral. It was a combination of Monty Python meets Joe Orton because the young Swazi priest had just done an evangelical course and in reality he jumped into the grave and opened it up, and tried to raise my father from the dead. Well we cut that right in half and took that out of the film because at this point in the story as soon as we showed it to preview audiences in the final editing stage the audience just said “it maybe true that this happened but it is too much! We need the guy to die and we need to be allowed to be in an emotional space”… once we know from the diagnosis all the way through to the end, we don't want an interruption and we want to feel as sad for his him as the characters feel. You don't want to suddenly be thinking ‘my god these insane mad Africans are we supposed to laugh or are we supposed to cry?’. And I said yeah that’s what really happened and they said it’s too much, and so I took it out and so it will be in the DVD extras!
That was a bad day, but the day I found the most difficult was the scene in the hospital. My father’s illness was over 9 months rather than the galloping cancer of 6 weeks that happened in this story - it was such a brutal disease. I wanted the hospital scene of where he is prepared for the brain tumour operation to be heightened and unrealistic, and as dignified as possible. And so I had a Mozart Fantasia in D Minor playing on the iPod, and I have always been obsessed with Kubrick’s style of pulling away from something in detail and then going back and then pushing in again. So the whole thing was choreographed on storyboards that you pushed in and then you pushed out in time to the music.
Who did the storyboards?
You drew them?
I drew them, they were sort of like cartoons. And that came about, (as I never intended to before hand) because I saw how my great friend Peter Capaldi with whom I did Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life with, works - well, he’s a brilliant artist and storyboards everything and they were like perfect paintings in themselves. But I found with the DOP who was French and spoke what I thought was good English with my terrible French, that within the third day there was confusion about how we had decided in the location recces that things were to be set up and shot. And I thought there is no time for this, I am dealing with so many things as you know, that I did these sort of cartoon storyboards…
At that point?
At that point, on the second day. And the first assistant director Charlie Watson who was absolutely brilliant and very experienced, unbeknownst to me, photostatted them all out and gave them to the entire crew! So that everybody in all the different languages understood in pictures and crude cartoons, exactly what I wanted.
But that was an organic process while you were shooting?
Yes and so I did that every night after emails at midnight.
Had you done any of it before you started shooting?
Oh that’s interesting because most people to cover their arse do that. I mean the first film I made I literally storyboarded every single shot because I was just so terrified of there DP, it was Roger Deakins
Oh that’s interesting because most people to cover their arse do that. I mean the first film I made I literally storyboarded every single shot because I was just so terrified of there DP, it was Roger Deakins
I’ve worked with him. I was told not to storyboard because people said it would be very limiting and that it wouldn't be useful. I suppose because most of the stuff was filmed in the locations where it actually happened and I knew the story obviously inside out I had very, very strong ideas about how everything should be framed and shot, so then having to express that in storyboard form became very straightforward.
Was the DP ok with that - honestly?
He was very, very determined that I do a 21 Grams on it and shoot it much more in sort of choppy or ‘wobbly scope’ as I call it, and bleach the film out. I said that is my absolute horror to have a bleached out film because it is set at the end of the 60s and to do tricksy chopping around and trying to imitate the current trend of how things are done…
‘Post Dogma’ about everything
Yeah, and so I said you know I love this letterbox format and that you have a boy sitting right on the corner here and then just an open amount of air either side all - of those things and so Pierre (the DP) eventually euphemistically or diplomatically said to me “ah you want to shoot it in the classical style?”. In other words you boring old fashioned fuck! So I am afraid I stuck to that because I thought that if I started going down that route I would end up with technical trickery that I wasn't able to feel wholeheartedly was right for my story.
There are things in it though for example when you almost do stop frame and there was a very interesting shot on the bridge with the mother where I think you are, if I've got it right, moving the cameras slightly back and zooming in at the same time
Yeah it was ‘contra zoom’
Yeah that’s the phrase
Invented by Steven Spielberg apparently. And so that was one thing that took an enormous amount of time to do and was never 100% right I am afraid to say.
Whose idea was that?
That was mine. It was the one point in the story I said that I wanted slow motion on the boy doing the cartwheels after ‘Stay as Sweet as You Are’ which we did, and the teacup going down had to be in slow motion.
Its not quite slow motion is it, its almost like you have slowed up regular speed and it’s slightly stilted isn't it, not fluid slow motion?
No exactly. And on the bridge the contra zoom - I didn't know how to explain it, I just said I know it’s invented by Steven Spielberg and you have got two actors and they are not moving apart but at this moment in the story they are emotionally completely moving apart. It’s a pivotal moment where this boy decides and realises that his mother is only back because her lover is going to Peru and so when he turns that is an absolute…
Did you write that in the script? Did you write stuff like ‘the camera does this’?
I did at this point yes, because I found out what the word for contra zoom was and so I said at ‘this point contra zoom happens’
It sounds almost French too and so he must have been pleased!
Well the nightmare was for the focus puller because the sun kept going in and so we had one version in the sun, the full sun, and then we had it part cloud, oh it was a bloody nightmare.
But did you write directions in the script, did you write ‘A Film Script’ as it were, so there was dialogue and then did you say things like what kind of a shot it was, or ‘camera moves in slowly’, or…
A bit of that, but Bruce Robinson again said to me you have got to write the script so that it is an entertaining read for people who are reading and it doesn’t just say ‘go close up, tracking, etc’ - you have got to emotionally describe the thing as colourfully as possible so that it is a good read in itself.
Is the script being published?
Not that I know of but my film diaries come out this Friday
Because Fabers do, I’m sure I could put you in touch with Fabers if it’s a good read you know!
I first have to find out whether I own the copyright or not because if I don't I am certainly not letting anyone else earn another bean out of what I haven't been paid yet! I’m not bitter!!
Are you going to make another film as a director - do you want to?
Yes I would love to
Is there one in the pipeline?
Well I was offered… it was interesting because when I tried to get finance in England we didn't get any for a long, long time and then Scion Films very kindly came in as co-producers with the French main producers, some years ago. The very people who turned me down and said “well we think you can write but you have no track record as a director and we don't think you are going to be able to pull this script off”. Those same people the moment it showed at Edinburgh called me the next day and said “we would like to be in business with you,” which was very satisfying. And understandable because you know, I had no track record whatsoever. And so I hope to do another one if I’m allowed.
Does anybody immediately have a question?
I just wondered about the Clockwork Orange clip. I know there was something I read in a Faber book about John Pullman and he was having a few problems dealing with Warner Brothers and I just wondered was it expensive and/or tricky getting the clip of Clockwork Orange?
I think the fact that Stanley Kubrick is dead enabled us to use this clip because it is the first film as far as I know, that has sampled from that. I did a film called ‘Colour Me Kubrick’ that has never come out in which I played a small part which is about the guy who impersonated Kubrick, played by John Malkovich. And Anthony Frewin the scriptwriter is somebody that I had the email address of. So I wrote to him, and then wrote to Malcolm McDowell via Robert Altman who had just worked with him on ‘The Company’. Tony Frewin went to the Kubrick estate and I also wrote to Warner Brothers 3 years ago and I said this is the script, this is the story, I want 47 seconds of this thing - what will it cost? You get a standard form back from Warner Brothers, you are not allowed to phone them - I tried that and got my head chopped off by an absolute brutal woman, I think she must have been ex Luftwaffe! You can’t email either. It cost $15,000 for a minute of screen time. So to have that in the film I thought was just a great coup from my point of view, and you know it was so crucial to me about the sort of moment of recognition for me and the boy in the story, (one and the same), and so that is how that happened.
Was the story always something you really wanted to tell as a film?
Yeah because of all the people I had met there was this constant refrain, I don’t know whether it happens in every small town where people said you “should write a story about Swaziland”. Or somebody ought to write a story about the people that are here and what actually goes on. So I could have written a shortcut version and made 20 different screenplays about all the incidents and the people that I came across. I suppose my first draft that I gave out for people to read which came down to 115 pages had more subsidiary characters and subplots. The late Mary Selway, (the casting director who cast me in my first film who originally was casting this film before her cancer came back and then Celestia Fox very generously took over the casting), well she said to me “go back and get rid of all the subplot stuff”. Cut down the Camelot (which I resisted), and stick to the triangle that is the family. That she said, that, is the core of your story. So that is what I did. So in wanting to write about where I grew up and the stuff that went on, I ended up writing more about my family than I had initially intended to do.
Was that dictated by let’s say, the inflexibility of film more than anything? The film demanded that your gentle friends spoke to you and said “simplify it”?
No there was no gentle, there was “you will cut this or stick to this!”. Because as I said right at the beginning, my worry was that I didn't have enough story to hold an audience’s attention for that long. I thought - it starts off as adultery in the car, gets shot, bonkers funeral at the end, I thought well is there enough here to sustain an audience’s interest? I realise that there was from the response that I got at the Edinburgh Festival when it was screened, it had its world premier last August…
Was that you first experience in bigger towns…
Yes with a huge audience and they weren't a preview audience or people that had been dragged off the street and asked ‘do you want to come and see a film…?’
How was that for you?
It was amazing because to hear people laugh as much as they did, and to hear them audibly cry at the end was something that completely undid me. I didn't really expect that it would be quite so audible.
Yeah. I thought it’s a partisan audience you know, it’s a film festival and I cut everything in half to protect myself as much as anything. Then when it screened at the Toronto Festival in I think September last year they laughed harder and they cried more loudly. And so the question and answer time at the end was really like a sort of group therapy session. They all stood up in the end and it was sort of like an AA meeting and it was “this is my family story we have bulimia, we have this...” and I don't mean to denigrate that but what I realised is this line of when she says “its family you never really get away”. It is about family and it may have the idiosyncrasy of being 1969 Swaziland my particular story, but the public show/private face of family life, addiction, adultery, divorce, loss, first love, unrequited love - all of those things, are much more common to a vast majority of people than I suppose I had dared allowed for. So the fact that it reached and touched people and the amount of people that said they were pleased to see a movie that doesn't have car chases or famous people running towards or away from ever bigger explosions, is a great thing thank you! But having said that, those were the kind of movies that I was so struck by in the 70s and the Godfather trilogy to me is still the greatest set of films I've ever seen. Even with the Godfather 3’s problems or lack of essential story it is essentially about a family even if they do rape, pillage and murder America. It is about what happens in a family and I think that is hugely to do with why it has this magnetic hold over people. But thank you for your question.
What interests you in a script when somebody walks up and says Richard, here is a script I want you to take a look at…
My heart hits the deck! Usually if an actor gives me a script, and it happened with all the actors on this thing too, it was “oh my god you’ve written a script, oh Jesus!” because I have had the awful experience of reading scripts from actors who are either out of work or have had a project they have dreamt about doing for a long time. And you know within the first 5 pages or 10 pages that this film will never get made. So you just have to hope that you are going to be employed at any time so that you never, ever have to say to them this is total horseshit it will never get made… I am so grateful when they then do get a job and you think phew that script is on the back burner! I don't know whether that has really answered your question. I have been sent synopsis of films, I have been sent dialogue where the dialogue is incomprehensible or is written in sort of Olde English and you think “well who talks like this even if it is set in the 16th century?!”. I think what people don't take on board very often in my experience is that scripts are so much about being written in a telegraphese that you have got to… in the instance of this script I think there are three key drunk scenes in the film where you have got to show the life of an addictive, abusive, violent alcoholic without having 25 scenes where the audience goes “oh for god’s sake get rid of it!.” Do you know what I mean? You have got to be very choosy about what those scenes are, although it was something that happened at 9.15pm in my household every night when I was growing up, that was the yard arm when my father turned from Mr Charming, happy, provocative good guy into Mr Hyde. I don’t know whether that has answered your question - I keep saying this!
I mean there is a parallel story to that with Robert Downey when he was in prison he got into a fight and he was put into solitary confinement and after 5 days one of the wardens came in and said “how is it going” and he said “its ok”. And he threw something on the floor that had paper in it and said “I thought you might be wanting to read something” and he looked down and it was a script!. And so he said “oh did you write this?” and he said “yeah it’s a unicorn story and Robert said “what?” and he said… ‘But its not your everyday unicorn story!’
I had one experience that was not entirely dissimilar. I wasn't in prison but I was at the dentist in Los Angeles while I was on Coppola’s Dracula 15 years ago. And while I sitting open mouthed in his chair, the dentist said “you are working with Francis Ford Coppola right? - I have a great script”. And he took a Mafia script out of his drawer and gave it to me and he said “will you please give it to Francis, and I said yes of course I will”.
Do you prefer acting, directing or writing?
Writing is very isolated and I am very social and gregarious and so I will find every excuse not to write. I mean the moment I start writing, and I don't know whether any writers in the room have the same thing, but the displacement thing “oh the mail looks absolutely wonderful” and you start looking at the post you’ve received. Or, ‘this newspaper looks wonderful, god the birds - I think I will get into nature today, I will go for a run, I will swim, I will do anything rather than face the laptop!’. But once you sit down and you start doing it, I knew that from having read about what proper writers do they start at 8 in the morning and work all the way through, that once you do that stuff does come out even if it is not any good. To absolutely force yourself to sit and do that every day was very useful. But the experience of directing something that you have written yourself that becomes three dimensional with actors, the thrill of that is better than anything I have ever experienced, it was absolutely mind bogglingly fabulous. I think it’s like birth maybe - you don't care about all the trouble that you have had to go through to get to that point where you are actually allowed to direct.
We you tempted to cameo yourself?
Oh no never, never because I can’t watch myself on screen, no I would have cut myself out! No I watched ‘Withnail and I’ in a rough cut and I swore I would never ever work again, and so I’m glad I was wrong! Oh no, no that’s unbearable. I think its like watching a video played back of yourself having sex – it’s not something… it’s the act of doing it that you enjoy, not watching it!. The only thing that appears of me is my hand. There is a time lapse sequence because I didn't want to try and do a morph thing with CGI because I knew it would cost too much - to go from the younger boy to the older boy of having the cricket…
I thought that was really good
Oh thank you - well the producers wanted that out too, I had to fight very hard for it because I said nobody will understand it if you just fade out when the boy leaves on the train and comes back as the older boy. I said no, there is no time for the audience to take this onboard. So the hands in the cricket thing taking over the dates - those are my hands and so that is my only hand job in the film!
I did a hand job in my first film! I also liked the fact, one of the beefs I have with contemporary films is that they seem to think that they have got nothing to do with theatre, and the tradition of the theatre and of dramatic story telling. They think they are far more interesting and somehow that realism and film realism is such a wonderful thing. I always think that is a complete crock of shit that actually okay, you are using a camera, but it is a play in a way. So if you can jump time through a device like you used there during the cricket match, I was very grateful for that because it’s quick, you know exactly where you are going - the next train comes in and you know the character has changed. I was really grateful that it was so fluid and so quick and theatrical.
I think we are running out of time but lets take a couple more questions
I might be wrong but I sense that you had particularly sparky relationship with your producers
Disastrous - with one producer
How did that effect the filmmaking process for you, and the editing?
Well I urge you to go and get these film diaries, I wish I could give you one free, on Friday when they come out because the French producing lady had produced on film before. So, if I tell you that once we got the film fully financed that the DCMS application for it to qualify as an English/French co-production was handed in 3 weeks before we started shooting as opposed to the statutory 4 weeks before hand. I was then called up having had almost no email response or telephone response from this person in 2 months prior to shooting. Imagine having to beg the Minister over the phone who said ‘you will not start shooting on 7th June it is illegal, you cannot do this, your film will be turned down’. That was one thing. I was then in Swaziland and 3 days before we started shooting discovered that there were no work permits, there were no medical permits, there were no police clearances (because you had to prove that the people coming into the country didn’t have a criminal record). And her words in a conference call with 13 other co-producers and executive producers between Paris and London were “just go and speak to that fat old Swazi guy” who was the Minister in the country. Now I don't know whether you call that racism, ignorance or plain bald faced stupidity but the idea that in London or in Paris you could turn round 3 days before and say “oh go to speak that fat old French guy or that fat old English guy and they are going to give you work permits and everything” at 3 days notice – well, that just would never happen! So, I then had to go and beg on my knees the King of Swaziland in a meeting that we weren't even sure we were going to get, to see whether we would be allowed to film in the country and whether they could give us a stay of execution to allow the work permits to be processed in order for us to start shooting, because all the actors were booked on other films straight afterwards. And we were losing the main house location where we shot for the first 4 weeks. Is this wind-up time like on the Academy Awards - shut up ok!?
I will start humming the song!
And as we started shooting without a producer in Swaziland at all, and then had to fire four of the camera crew two days before we started shooting who had driven up from Cape Town…
Because she had absolutely dismissed the stipulations that you had to have English or French people in those jobs, so she had gone for the cheaper option and employed South Africans. So I was left with the task at midnight on Friday night two days before we started shooting, of telling grown men and women they were fired! People burst into tears, people were so stressed and strained at that point. And then a co-producer called me at ten to midnight on the Sunday night 6th June 2004 and said “well, we are not quite sure whether you can start” and I said “we are shooting tomorrow, there is no producer here whatsoever, we are shooting tomorrow! We have 110 people here, we are shooting and we did!!” So you know, to be completely abandoned like that when a producer should have been doing all those things was cause for great enmity and I think 7 weeks before we started shooting she drew me aside and said that the contract she had had for 2 years she was no longer honouring because she didn't know anything about it all of a sudden - and that I would be paid a quarter of the money that had been stipulated and agreed to. So from that point onwards I thought - well this is war! Now we’ve spent 2 years since the film finished shooting trying to get these song rights cleared and paid for, and so it has been a nightmare.
Richard, welcome to the wonderful world of directing and thank you!
A Huge thank you to Richard E. Grant, Mike Figgis, Lionsgate UK Films and all the staff at The Rex Cinema, for making this event possible. WAH-WAH opens nationwide in the UK on June 2nd 2006.